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HR Handled Right

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Ever get so frustrated you feel like firing your entire sales force? Join the club. Sales wants the freedom to make the most $$$ and often sees human resources as a necessary (or maybe unnecessary) evil, while HR needs compliance and standardization to stay legal and keep sane. Human resource professionals are rule makers; salespeople are rule benders (or breakers). Its pretty common for the conflicting agendas (not to mention personalities) of human resource professionals and sale people tend to put them at odds.

Yet the reality is that both have a vested interest in joining forces. A 1995 Catalyst Foundation study, for example, found that sales managers who weren’t aligned with HR often failed to communicate or implement critical HR policies that have proven effective in keeping women in sales. Without cooperation between HR and the sales team, both wind up spending enormous amounts of energy putting out fires and recruiting new sales people – because the good ones left.

So how do you cope with the lack of compliance and “prima donna” attitude of sales and play an active role in their success? You sell them, of course. In this article, we’ll take a look at how HR professionals can influence compensation structure, forecasting, and sales training to increase the job satisfaction of your sales force and get a little cooperation and gratitude to boot.

The Sales Forecast is Cloudy

What salesperson would keep his job if s/he predicted that s/he was not going to meet his or her quarterly quota? None. The pressure sales professionals feel to make optimistic predictions and please their managers creates stress throughout the company. The sales person winds up predicting closing dates he has no control over, the sales manager takes the heat from the inaccurate forecasts from top management, and the rest of the company has to do the cleanup.

How do you solve this problem? Take forecasting out of the hands of sales reps and give it to their managers. Putting forecasting on the sales managers shoulders motivates him or her to get more involved in monitoring the behaviors that lead to sales – assessing what leads are in the pipeline, rating the quality of the leads, and working with the sales person to set mutually agreed upon objective activities that lead to a sale. It allows him to focus on what counts – the revenue-generating tasks – without obsessing about revenue.

Focusing on revenue is understandable, since sales managers were once sales people and spent most of their time worrying about numbers. However, what makes a successful sales professional is not the same as what makes an effective manager. Sales managers need to be taught not only how to manage people; they need to understand how to manage the process of selling. And this starts by shifting your sales managers from a numbers focus to a process orientation.

Showdown at Commission Junction

About a gazillion dollars have been spent trying to figure out what compensation structure encourages peak sales performance and the answer seems to be “it depends.” It depends on the market, your product, and the personality of your sales professional.

For example, recent research indicated that, in a fast-paced and growing industry, salespeople are likely to be most satisfied, and productive, if they are paid on commission. The reason for this is that this particular sales environment ensures feelings of success (only truly ineffective salespeople will fail in this type of industry). Therefore, sales people receiving commission will be the happiest, unless they are ineffective to begin with – and won’t last long anyway. On the other hand, a larger salary base may be helpful if the industry is unpredictable, slow or declining. Here, even talented salespeople are likely to experience some failure. In order to protect them from losing confidence, they should be given the option of a higher salary.

Personality and motivation also plays a key role. A person with enormous drive can work for very little money at first but cannot tolerate a cap on their long-term earning capacity. If a salesperson is more motivated by consistency and predictability, however, a heavily commissioned compensation structure may have a demotivating effect because it is seen as too risky.

In fact, HR professionals should view compensation structure as a potential barrier rather than a booster to sales performance. The wrong compensation structure, such as putting an earning cap on a highly motivated sales person, is much more likely to be a demotivator than the right one is to provide long-term motivation. In other words, the right compensation structure is likely to prevent a salesperson from leaving, but it won’t make him or her a superstar.

You Can’t Make Silk Out of a Sow’s Ear

You know the numbers. Twenty percent of a sales force makes 80 percent of the sales. Fifty five percent of people in sales shouldn’t be selling, and an additional 20 to 25 percent should be selling something else. Yet, in our hiring and performance management consulting and training, I am amazed at how often sales managers have hiring responsibility without understanding the interplay between the demands of their industry, the sales job they are trying to fill, and the personality of the most effective candidate.

No amount of training or money will make an unqualified sales person successful. Sales managers must know what attributes, skills and motivations distinguish your top performers from the B and C players and how to interview to hire more of them.

Five Ways to Prevent Burn Out By Boosting Productivity

Sales is an emotional roller coaster and many sales people are addicted to the highs and lows of working on commission. Yet, some of the same personality characteristics that make good salespeople excel can contribute to burnout without the product knowledge, self-management, and skill development to back them up. HR can play a critical role in helping sales balance their drive and energy with solid policies and procedures. Here are five immediate ways HR can help their sales force by boosting productivity:

  • Provide product usage training. Mike Bosworth, author of Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Markets credits his background in customer service for his phenomenal success in sales. That’s because he understood much more than the benefits and features of his products – he understood the customer. Human resource professionals can play a critical role in influencing finance, CEO and production to move from product training, which focuses on the features and benefits of the product, to product usage training – why the customer needs it and how they will use it.
  • Match sales training to the individual needs of your sales force. Never again conduct sales training without a prior assessment of each participant’s strengths and weaknesses. Know which of your professionals are empathetic but have difficulty closing and which ones need to reign in their impatience and expand their listening skills. Group trainees according to their development needs and conduct mini-training sessions customized for these groups.
  • Introduce a flexible compensation plan that provides your sales professionals with the kind of compensation to which s/he will best respond. Vary the amount of draw/base with the commission percentage and let the sales person choose what ratio feels comfortable. Come up with three or four basic compensation plans that you can offer. Even though this requires more work on your part upfront, you will see the benefits down the line.
  • Offer developmental programs in listening skills, self-management, assertiveness, technical training, sales coaching, presentation skills, and approaches to prospecting. But first, develop a quantifiable ROI and present it to your sales managers. Sales managers don’t want their people out of the field – unless you can show them a benefit to the bottom line.
  • Develop an ideal candidate profile by studying your top performers. Who are the 20 percent of your sales force that makes 80 percent of your sales? They have a proven track record in your industry, at your company, and in the job you are trying to fill. Find out what these top performers do that makes them excel – and turn it into an ideal candidate profile your sales managers can use in the hiring process.

The Bottom Line

While I’ve focused on ways HR can help their sales force boost productivity and prevent burnout, working with a temperamental sales staff takes its toll on HR, too. Developing an alliance with sales managers and showing them how your policies and procedures add to the bottom line is a step in preventing burnout in both professions.

HR and sales can work together to find out more about why each one approaches rules the way they do…and work out some compromises. Sales people can understand what is really required and HR can figure out how legitimate exceptions can be made to make things work for sales. And, in the process, prevent the death of a salesman’s career – and perhaps birth a superstar.

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